Richard II, Donmar Warehouse, London
Company, Crucible, Sheffield
The Ladykillers, Gielgud, London
Michael Grandage’s departure from the Donmar is marked by Shakespeare’s tale of an ambitious new arrival on the throne
Sunday 11 December 2011
Eddie Redmayne’s King Richard looks like an ivory tower personified. In Shakespeare’s drama of power struggle, Richard II – staged by Michael Grandage, the Donmar’s outgoing artistic director – Redmayne is an etiolated beanpole, robed in white from top to toe.
In a gilded throne room heavy with incense, this young royal is cultivating an aura of sanctified majesty. Redmayne barely deigns to make eye contact with his genuflecting courtiers.
His frailty is apparent, however, as soon as two feuding nobles storm in and demand that he adjudicate. With his lip twitching like a nervous rabbit, Redmayne blinks myopically, even while trying to assert his authority.
Far from restoring the peace, he sets in motion his own ruin by banishing his cousin. Incensed, Andrew Buchan’s Bolingbroke will return to head a rebel army, depose Richard and, of course, be crowned Henry IV.
Grandage’s staging is certainly handsome with its shimmering silks, glinting armour and silver shafts of light. The medieval costumes actually make the modern-day reverberations more startling: the arrogant top dog Richard being toppled by a mass insurrection, having heaped taxes on the common folk and stuffed his own coffers with gold.
Unfortunately, Redmayne’s performance proves a disappointment. He is, as yet, not sufficiently assured to capture all of Richard’s mercurial complexities. The facial twitches seem increasingly superficial. His glazed stare means he hardly connects with anyone emotionally. Though he repeatedly talks of weeping, his fall inspires no tears, and his devastated poetic monologues were nervously rushed on press night.
He has his sharp moments when compelled to hand over the crown, twisting between cowed defeat and still imperious jibes. Buchan’s stony-faced Bolingbroke needs to be thrown on to the back foot more decisively at those points. Both of them are, in fact, outshone by Pippa Bennett-Warner in the cameo role of Isabel, Richard’s devoted, fiery queen. Also, three cheers for their outstanding elders, Ron Cook giving the turncoat Duke of York a sardonic edge; Phillip Joseph (why don’t we see more of this actor?) a passionately appalled Bishop of Carlisle; and Michael Hadley’s dying John of Gaunt, speaking like a feverous visionary of “this sceptred isle” as he condemns Rich-ard’s consuming vanity.
Though this isn’t Grandage’s best production, he has been rightly fanfared for his achievements over nearly a decade at the Donmar, whence he departs for pastures new in January.
Is every American's home his castle? If so, in Company, Stephen Sondheim's musical from 1970, Robert's defences are down. His apartment is about to be invaded by his New York coterie who, unlike him, have all married. They come bearing gifts and a birthday cake twinkling with 35 candles in Jonathan Munby's upmarket production at the Sheffield Crucible.
Robert's bachelor pad would be a draw for anyone with an eye for a converted warehouse. What a stunner: soaring columns, a spiralling staircase and, through the vast window, Manhattan's dimly glimmering skyline (design by Christopher Oram).
But will Robert (Daniel Evans) embrace his friends with bounding delight, or flee the surprise party, being a guy on the verge of a mid-life crisis? Sondheim can have it both ways. He plays around with alternative endings and jumps back and forth in time, as we share Robert's shifting views on the conjugal life. He has half a mind to tie the knot, bursting into his number "Marry me a little". But then his wedded pals mix encouraging nudges with jaded asides and sly suggestions that he might like to play around with them, while the spouse is away.
I have to say the Seventies look doesn't do Evans many favours: a clingy shirt, kipper tie and moth-eaten shag perm. Personally, I also wanted more bleak moments and less cute comedy than this revival supplies. Still, Evans, an old hand at Sondheim, has drive and polish. Samantha Spiro delivers her hyper- ventilating patter as Amy, the terrified bride, with brio. Francesca Annis's rich, bored Joanna – chic but with a rough croak – is very New York. And Damian Humbley's Harry muses on the ups and downs of being hitched in "Sorry-Grateful" with extraordinary, probing poignancy.
Rather than a round of seductions, a dastardly liquidation seems inevitable in The Ladykillers for, of course, this new West End staging (transferred from Liverpool Playhouse) is an adaptation of the big-screen Ealing comedy of 1955.
In this cod-thriller, Marcia Warren's dotty Mrs Wilberforce is a little old widow who thinks her gentleman-lodger, Professor Marcus (Peter Capaldi in the Alec Guinness role), is rehearsing in his bedroom with his charming string quartet. In fact, he and his flailing, screwball cronies are trying to mastermind a heist and stash the loot under Mrs W's nose: until, that is, she smells a rat and, tutting primly, insists they call the rozzers to confess.
Directed by Sean Foley (of the zany physical theatre company The Right Size), this ought to be a romping hoot. Michael Taylor's set is spectacular: an insanely skew-whiff, spinning house, the heist scene playfully staged with toy cars and vans whizzing up the walls.
Certainly, Warren is a tootling triumph, and James Fleet is priceless as the tweedy conman and closet cross-dresser Major Courtney. Playing the geezer Harry, Stephen Wight is fantastic at slapstick, getting biffed left right and centre, and Ben Miller is droll, too, as the knife-lobbing gangster, Louis.
Yet somehow all their brilliant bits don't add up to a total blast. Clive Rowe isn't quite pulling his weight as the dimwit One-Round. Capaldi's frantic darting wears thin, and the dialogue (adapted by Graham Linehan from William Rose's screenplay) keeps dipping, creating slack patches rather than escalating hilarity. So, ultimately, enjoyable enough but not unmissable.
'Richard II' (0844 871 7624) to 4 Feb; 'Company' (0114-249 6000) to 7 Jan; 'The Ladykillers' (0844 482 5130) booking to 18 Feb
Kate Bassett heeds the call of a new Joe Penhall at the Royal Court
The Heart of Robin Hood is the RSC's family treat with a twist: a feisty Maid Marian and a ski-slope set. It's at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, till 7 Jan. The British debut of Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty is edgy, tender and funny, with Tom Burke and Siâ* Brooke as ex-lovers (Almeida, to 14 Jan).
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